Tuesday, July 22, 2014
Sorry for being such a slacker lately. I would love to breezily post recipes and stories every single week like clockwork but you see, the only one in charge of my schedule is me. And I have proven myself time and time again to be unmanageable. It’s not that my heart isn’t here; it is. It’s just that my body is usually at the beach- and I don’t have a much better excuse than that. I take leisure time in the summer extraordinarily seriously. Massachusetts in the summer is glorious, absolutely glorious. It’s also quite dreamy through September and parts of October. And then somewhere around the first of November it goes downhill and the rest of the year is spent in hibernation with many pots of soup and bottles of red wine. So when summer comes round, on my days off when I would normally check lots of pertinent tasks off my to-do list, including maintaining this here blog, I instead feel zero obligations and I park my ass at the beach with a meatball sub, because, apparently, shame is not an emotion that I feel and because I take summer very, very seriously.
The crown jewel of summer always has been the 4th of July. For as long as I can remember, my family would gather together at my aunt and uncle’s house by the beach (where Paul and I lived last summer while we were preparing to buy our house) It was (big sigh) the greatest house ever. Screened in porch, large, partially shaded yard, ample parking, and a slow, easy shuffle down to a beautiful New England beach. It was the perfect place for 4th of July. We spent the day pruning up our fingers in the Atlantic, the afternoon drinking a few too many watermelon margaritas on the porch and the evening eating a big fat 4th of July feast. At some point my aunts would sing ‘Grand Old Flag’ at the top of their lungs, sometimes marching, with flags and hats, mostly fueled by Chardonnay. It was a good place to be.
So at the end of last summer when Linda and Eric finally sold their house on Grasshopper Lane, we were all a bit verclempt. As expected. This is the first summer in my life I haven’t had a direct blood relative with free beach parking access- so you can imagine it’s been a pretty tough adjustment for me. I’ve lived a charmed life in terms of access to beaches and that, my friends, is a difficult thing to bid adieu. So this year, as the 4th loomed and the nostalgia of perfect family holidays danced in the memories, I decided that we simply had to get together. Even if it was in a landlocked cul-de-sac closer to the city than any coastal breezes. I’d buy squirt guns and water balloons and the food would be just as good and the company same as always and it would be great. And you know what? It was.
What you realize as you grow up and places you are very attached to get sold to new families, like the house you grew up in, your grandmother’s digs, or the family beach house is that as sad as it is to close those doors for the final time, no four walls can define a family’s joy. The happiness of being together, sharing food, laughter, good news and a little too much wine simply cannot be limited to any particular location. What we share is beyond limitation, geographic or otherwise. And it always helps that our food is the MOST bomb around. So this July we had Uncle Billy hitch his smoker to a trailer and drive it over to our side yard. And we had smoked almonds and hotdogs with three different sauces. And then a few perfectly smoked pork butts were pulled and sliced, piled on homemade brioche rolls and slathered with not one, but four different homemade barbeque sauces. We had baked beans and two types of slaw and lobster salad so fresh you could still taste the ocean water. But most of all we had each other and we all know that’s all that really matters.
BARBEQUE BAKED BEANS
(adapted, just barely, from Pioneer Woman)
6 slices bacon, cut into 1” pieces
1 medium onion, cut into small dice
1/2 medium green pepper, minced
1 jalapeno, seeded and minced
Worcestershire sauce (optional)
3 large cans (28 oz.) pork and beans
3/4 cup barbecue sauce
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a large Dutch oven or deep skillet, fry bacon over medium-high heat until partially cooked and about ¼ cup drippings have released. Scoop out bacon and set on paper towels to drain. Reduce heat to medium, add onion, green pepper and jalapeno to the pan and sauté until tender and fragrant; about 5 minutes. If using Worcestershire and bourbon (I use Makers), raise the heat to medium-high/ high and sprinkle in a few generous drizzles of Worcestershire to deglaze the pan with it. Then, repeat with bourbon. Pour in a scant ¼ cup, crank heat to high and use a wooden spoon to scrape any browned bits off the bottom of the pan.
Reduce heat to medium and add all three cans of beans and remaining ingredients, stirring to thoroughly combine. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary. Since I was a bit generous with the vinegar and Worcestershire, my beans were a bit tangy at this stage. Which I wanted because I knew the whole mixture would sweeten substantially as it baked- keep this in mind. Let beans simmer a few minutes and then transfer the whole pot to the oven. If your skillet is too big to fit you can pour the beans into a 13x9 inch baking dish. Top the beans with the reserved bacon and bake until bubbly and bacon is crisped, about 2 hours.
To make ahead: I made my beans two days prior to my BBQ. I baked them for one hour then let the whole pan cool. Store in the fridge until ready to serve and either bring up to heat in a 325 degree oven for an additional hour; or, on the stove top, covered, over low heat for one hour.
Tuesday, June 17, 2014
I consider myself fairly skilled at some things, others not-so-much. I can pull together a decent meal, I’m really good at making sandwiches and I’d like to think I’m a pretty approachable source to help you pick out an interesting, but inexpensive wine. I’m also quite clear about those things where my particular skill set falls short: any feat of athleticism, catching a ball, throwing a ball, running without complaining, being patient when I’m hungry and putting clean laundry away. Fortunately, in some aspects my mate fills in where I fall short. He’s smart and organized around the house and thorough where I am often slapdash, but together we are truly good at one thing and that thing is Sundays.
For many years when I was in the restaurant business, I worked every Sunday morning. First on the floor, pouring coffee and doling out pancakes and then later behind the bar, where I mastered making a 2 gallon jar of Bloody Mary mix in less than 5 minutes flat and learned to pour a mimosa in my sleep. So a few years back when I made the shift from the 9-5 world to retail, I knew working weekends would be in the cards. But I set out, in my initial interview, that this woman will not work Sundays. You can take your time and a half; Sundays are sacred to the core. And we Bensons are super good at them. I prefer to have zero social plans, so we can meander through the day unfettered. We like to make breakfast and linger over way too many cups of coffee, with some music on and have a long conversation. Often times we have our most important conversations on Sunday mornings, because it’s that time when we reconnect and get that sense that can sometimes get lost in the chaos of the week, that we are, in fact, in this together.
Half way through the day on Sunday, I’ll often call someone up to come over for dinner, whether it be Paul’s folks, my mom, our friend Shane, or my dad. Often, if my mom is coming back up from the Cape, I’ll tell her to grab some littlenecks and fish and we’ll make a supper out of her hauls. Steaming the littlenecks in a simple situation of shallots, garlic and white wine; serving the whole steaming pot with a few grilled slices of bread or some chunky Ciabatta. Fish and seafood in general, when you’re lucky enough to be from Massachusetts, where fresh, local catch is often abundant, is best not messed with. So I dress the cod with a sprinkle of salt, a hefty sifting of Old Bay, a squeeze of lemon and a few pats of butter and toss it in the oven to bake. A simple main dish and two sides, a classic Sunday supper and a chance to be with friends and family. This is what I live for, this is what it’s all about. A few Sundays back this particular salad was a perfect late spring side for a simple, delicious fish dinner. I told you I’m good at this.
SHAVED BRUSSELS SPROUT SALAD
with BACON, ALMONDS and PECORINO
1-2 lb. Brussels sprouts, trimmed and very thinly sliced
3-4 slices bacon
½ cup raw almonds, toasted and coarsely chopped
½ cup grated Pecorino cheese
For the dressing:
Juice of one lemon
1 tsp. reserved bacon fat
¼ cup olive oil
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 tsp. honey
Splash orange juice
Splash rice vinegar
Salt and pepper
Set bacon in a cold skillet over medium-high heat. Brown thoroughly, remove and drain on paper towels. Reserve one teaspoon of the warm bacon grease. Crumble cooled bacon into bits, set aside. While the bacon browns, prep the sprouts: trim the tough ends off your sprouts, then peel off the outer leaves. Slice in half and place cut side down on a cutting board; use a super sharp knife to thinly shave the sprouts into tiny ribbons. Place in salad bowl and sprinkle with a touch of salt and pepper.
Toast almonds in a low oven or over low heat in a small nonstick pan until fragrant. Coarsely chop and add to bowl with shaved sprouts. Use a microplane or fine grater to grate Pecorino into bowl and add bacon bits.
For the dressing: combine all ingredients in a jar and using an immersion blender, emulsify; or, clamp the lid on the jar and shake like crazy to combine. Pour about half the dressing over salad, toss together and let sit in the fridge for 30 minutes to 1 hour. Before serving, toss in a bit more dressing and serve with the remainder of dressing on the side.
This salad, like most slaws (which it resembles closely), really does well to soak up the dressing for a bit. The end result is really unique- a little salty and decadent thanks to the bacon and Pecorino, a touch bitter and crisp courtesy of the sprouts and overall bright and delicious, care of a terrific, simple dressing. This is also a killer salad for pairing wine with. In this case, we were drinking Raventos i Blanc l’Hereu- a delicious sparkling Spanish wine; but it would work with any mineral tinged white- an Albarino, a California style Sauvignon, even Muscadet. Actually, almost any white, period. A wine-friendly food- you gotta love that.
Tuesday, May 20, 2014
When it comes to disappointing children with my menu items, I’m very well versed. The spring vegetable bruschetta or healthy white bean hummus I’m apt to bring aren’t exactly kiddie crowd pleasers. Take for example this delicious, albeit very adult, punch which I brought to our family Easter lunch. When I busted out the punch bowl my niece Isabel was like, SO excited “oooh! Like we’re having a prom!” I enlisted all the kids’ help with putting the punch together and snapping these two quick photos. They were psyched. I had to break it to them that, while I would prepare them a test batch of non-alcoholic punch, once the cava went in the bowl was completely off limits to them. I’m like the worst aunt ever. "Hey, kids, here’s this hot pink/ purple drink concoction which looks delicious, appealing and fun and no, you can’t have any because it will make your behavior less predictable than it already is and your mom and I will get arrested. SOR-RYYY"
Fortunately, the flavor profile, whether boozed up or not, was not super appealing to their young palates anyways. Blackberries, they can dig, heck, maybe even lime, but ginger? It’s like I pureed Brussels sprouts right in there or something. One by one they each quietly pawned their glasses off on each other, except for Charlie, who’s 7 and brutally honest in the fashion that only an adorable 7 year old can get away with “um, Jessie, I’m sorry but I don’t like this (huge smile) it’s gross.” I felt far less guilty as I upended a bottle of bubbly wine into the bowl and my sister-in-law and I went on to drain several glasses. What do kids know about beverages anyways? The end all be all is a Capri Sun.
This punch is slightly spicy, a bit tart and very refreshing. Thanks to the addition of the ginger beer it’s a bit lower in alcohol than most high test punches (like the one that made my friend fall down her basement stairs at that one Christmas party- that’s a NIGHTTIME punch). This, this is a DAYTIME punch. As such, it’s absolutely perfect for brunch, lunch or the onslaught of bridal and baby showers that May and June bring. Not to mention the fact that it’s just the prettiest purple-pink color that you ever did see. If I ever have yet another (there’s been 2 and counting) Purple Rain-themed birthday party, well, let’s just say I know what I’m serving then.
SPARKLING WINE PUNCH with BLACKBERRY, GINGER and MINT
1-2 bottles dry sparkling white wine (I prefer Cava*)
2 small boxes blackberries
Juice from one lime
Splash orange juice
2 tsp. grated ginger
1-2 inch piece lime zest
1-2 tbs. fresh mint leaves, plus more for garnish
2 bottles ginger beer
In a small saucepan, combine blackberries, lime and orange juices, ginger, lime zest and mint. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Let reduce approximately 15 minutes, remove from heat and let cool a bit. Using an immersion blender, regular blender or food processor, puree completely and filter through a fine mesh sieve. Punch base can be made 2-3 days ahead of time, store in the fridge in a sealed container. To make punch: fill a large punch bowl with ice, pour in punch base, one bottle of cava, two bottles of ginger beer and garnish with mint leaves.
Tuesday, April 29, 2014
I started drinking rosé last week. Out of sheer meteorological protest. Spring this year, like every year in New England, is a big heap of bullsh!t. For every deceptively warm 65 degree Tuesday, there is a weekend of sleet and four more mornings where you can hear the heat kick on as you hit the snooze. April is the month of accidentally wearing flip flops before learning that it’s laughably cold out and returning home to change with frozen pinky toes. So I decided that if the weather is going to continue to be rude, I’m going to start drinking like it’s July, whether it’s ever coming or not. I’m kind of proactive like that.
Rosé is my favorite summer drink and in my line of work, in late March when you see pre-sell sheets with pink wine on them you gasp a little bit and allow yourself to get hopeful: this winter will end! Now, in late April, as the wine starts arriving at the store I’m such a hound for it that I’m actually defensive when customers ask for it. ‘Are there any rosés yet?’ In my head I’m like ‘back off. That first case is coming home with me, hombre.’ The fact that the whole entire goal of my job is to sell product is replaced by my blind devotion to pink wine and the promise of warm weather it brings. We need time to be alone. I’ll call you when we’re ready.
Now, because I’m a well rounded individual, I don’t JUST drink seasonally…I’ve naturally also started embracing the bright green produce of spring as it filters into the store. I guess I just don’t guard the ramps and asparagus quite as violently as the first few cases of Raventos i Blanc 'La Rosa'. When I peeped this salad in last month’s Bon Appétit, it smacked of spring to me and also brought back onto my radar one of my favorite simple delights of warmer weather: quick pickles. They are so easy (and in this case pretty!) and delicious on salads, layered on sandwiches, even set out with some good cheeses, crusty bread and cured meats for an appetizer. I made this salad for both a dinner party and Easter lunch and in both cases it was as well received as a bowl of sunshine on a not-quite-warm-enough April day.
BABY GREENS and HERB SALAD with PICKLED RADISH,
ROAST VEGETABLES, PISTACHIOS and FETA
(adapted from Bon Appétit)
Quick Pickled Radish:
1 cup rice vinegar
2 tbs. sugar
1 tbs. kosher salt
3-4 good size watermelon radish, peeled and very thinly sliced
Salad and Dressing:
2-3 tbs. olive oil
3 large carrots, peeled and cut into ¾ inch slices on the diagonal
½ bunch asparagus, cut into 2 inch sections
Several cups mixed greens (I used baby spinach and baby arugula)
¼ cup herbs (I used mostly chives, followed by mint and just a bit of tarragon)
½ cup shelled pistachios, toasted and roughly chopped
¼ - ½ cup crumbled feta or shaved parmesan cheese
1/3 cup olive oil
1 tbs. lemon juice
1 tbs. rice vinegar
Kosher salt and black pepper
Heat oven to 400 degrees. On a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet, toss carrots and asparagus in 2-3 tbs. olive oil. Generously salt and pepper and set to roast until tender (maybe a little less than 20 minutes). The key to cooking these two vegetables together evenly is to keep the slices of carrots on the thinner side. You want them cooked through, but not roasted to oblivion, because over-roasted vegetables in salads tend to be the wrong version of mushy. While the vegetables roast, pickle the radish and toast the nuts:
Bring vinegar, sugar and salt to boil in a small saucepan. Let simmer just a few moments until salt and sugar are dissolved. Remove from heat and drop in the radish. Let sit until just tender (about 10 minutes- although leaving a batch overnight in the fridge had no adverse results). This whole concoction will turn a fluorescent hot pink. It’s so pretty! If you have trouble finding watermelon radish, use a bunch of traditional radish. They will still turn pink, but maybe not as brightly fluorescent as the watermelon variety. Toast pistachios in a small skillet over low heat until browned and fragrant. Coarsely chop.
Combine greens and herbs in a large salad bowl. Finely mince chives, tear mints leaves from their stems and leave whole, pick tarragon leaves from their stems as well. In the spring, I adore chives, so I used a whole bunch of them here. I used slightly less mint than chives and even less tarragon, because mint and tarragon can be a bit pronounced, I didn’t want them to overwhelm the salad. Lightly salt and pepper the greens and herbs before layering on roasted vegetable, nuts, pickled radish and whichever cheese you’re using.
The first time I made this salad, I used crumbled feta, on round two, I shaved parmesan with a vegetable peeler over the top. Both versions were delightful, so choose whichever you have on hand. Combine all dressing ingredients in a jar, clamp the lid on and shake like crazy to emulsify. Pour about half dressing over salad, gently toss, salt and pepper a bit more to taste and serve with extra dressing along side.
Thursday, April 10, 2014
You don’t want to know about this. I assure you, you really do not. I picture this blog post as a written version of the scene in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (anything with John C. Reilly is amazing. Anything) when he happens upon his friends doing drugs in the bathroom. As they list every single appealing thing about the drugs in question, they frame the statement with ‘you don’t want this.’ Only in this particular scene you are sweet, young, naïve Dewey and I am a bad, bad influence. Just as the endless winter breaks, when you can almost feel the sunshine on your pale, soft, winter body, as you commit yourself to a healthy eating and fitness plan to prepare for summer’s entry, here I come along, like the devil himself, with a snack so delicious it’s completely shameful indeed. I’m telling you: you don’t want this, man.
A close friend’s sister emailed me the other day. The subject line was “Marinated Sheeps Feta” the email text was brief: “you introduced me to this a long time ago at the fruit center, I'm just wondering, is it normal to scoop it up and eat it with cape cod potato chips? I think I have hit a new low...” The fact that a friend I haven’t seen in quite some time feels comfortable enough with me to email me of her secret snacking habits reminds me, I’ve been in this game for years. Pimping snacks so shameful you feel the need to confess. I’m like the Avon Barksdale of appetizers and I truly can’t be trusted.
But the cycle works both ways you see. Not only did she shed light on her addiction, but she also placed this sweet, sweet nectar right smack dab on my radar as well. Just as I can almost feel the sunshine on my translucent, dimpled upper arms, here I find myself again, with a jar full of bad news marinating in my fridge. If we’re going down the wrong path, at least we have each other.
MARINATED FETA with GARLIC, ROSEMARY and PINK PEPPERCORNS
4-5 oz. piece feta cheese*
2-3 cloves garlic, peeled and left whole
1 sprig rosemary, snipped into 2 or 3 pieces
2 teaspoons pink peppercorns (or 1 tsp. black)**
¾ - 1 cup good quality olive oil
*if you can find it at the right price, sheep’s milk feta is the creamiest and takes best to marinating; however, I made this batch just using the basic block feta my store sells by the pound. A good rule of thumb is, the better the feta, the better this will be. But I’m quite sure you’ll enjoy it any old way.**I use pink peppercorns because I think they are a) pretty and b) tasty and mild. But you can use plain black peppercorns here; they are just a bit spicier, so I would use less.
This here snack was something we originally carried from an Australian cheese maker at my store. And it was so good I pretty much had to never buy it ever. Which was fine and not that hard to do because it was like, 8 bucks a container and so popular it was often out of stock. Then, the evil geniuses in our gourmet department decided to start making their own. And now not only is it always in supply, but it is often available to me in a giant, fragrant, delicious tub, there for the taking, impossible to resist. I decided to try my hand at making a batch at home because apparently I’m a total masochist. Pray for me.
Use a wide, shallow, large mouthed jar or somewhat equal sized Tupperware container for this. Slice feta into a few slabs and place in jar, along with garlic cloves, rosemary sprigs and ½ of peppercorns. Pour olive oil over and add an additional clove of garlic, another sprig of herbs and remainder of peppercorns. Clamp the lid on and swirl a bit in order to coat everything with oil. Let marinate in fridge for at least 1 or 2 days (I know!). 100% olive oil will always solidify a bit and get cloudy when chilled, so for the best presentation remove jar from fridge before serving and let the temperature rise enough for oil to clarify a bit. If you’re eating this alone, in secret, well, scoop it straight out of the jar standing in front of the fridge with the door ajar. Maybe with some Cape Cod Potato Chips. You won’t find any judgment here.
Thursday, April 3, 2014
I’m quite sure my father may have been born with stew coursing through his veins in lieu of human blood. At least, his dietary choices certainly point to that. Whenever we find ourselves at a pub (which is incidentally where you’ll often find us) if I see beef stew on the menu I can call without a moment’s hesitation what he will order for his meal. On Friday, the seafood restaurant near his house serves fish chowder. So if you ever had trouble tracking him down, you should just head over to the bar at the Union Chowder House in South Weymouth on Fridays at noon. I will bet you $100 he will be tucked into a stool there with a cold Heineken in hand and a steaming bowl of fish chowder under his chin.
When my parents split up and my dad was in his own apartment, I felt like every single time I would visit for dinner, or ask him what he was cooking, the answer would inevitably be some sort of stew, but more often than not, it was chicken cacciatore. I started to suspect a bit it was either the only thing he knew how to cook, or perhaps his favorite food in the whole universe, even ahead of beef stew or fish chowder. In the end the answer I think is as simple as this: it’s a meal you can count on. Simple to pull together, truly satisfying and given to producing a moderate sized pot of leftovers which are perfect for eating for the next few meals. Regardless of the reasoning behind his dedication for chicken cacciatore, I knew it was something I needed to make for him, as I did just a few Sundays back. This straightforward easy dish is perfect for dinner guests. Relatively inexpensive, easy to pull together and (my favorite) provides you with enough hands off time during cooking to make a martini and relax with your guests before getting it on the table.
(from Marcella Hazan)
1 3-4 lb. chicken, cut into pieces
¼ cup flour
4 tbs. canola oil
1 small onion, thinly sliced
1 red bell pepper, seeded and thinly sliced
1 large carrot, peeled and sliced
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. rosemary
2 cloves garlic
½ cup dry white wine
1 can whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes
Salt and pepper
2-3 tbs. flat leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
Heat oil in a large stock pot over medium high heat. Salt and pepper chicken pieces liberally and then dust with flour, shaking the excess off. Brown chicken in batches, about 8 minutes or so per batch, until the skin is crisped but chicken is not cooked through. Remove chicken from pan and set aside.
Reduce heat to medium and add onion, carrot, celery, red pepper, herbs and garlic to pan; stir constantly to prevent garlic from scorching for about 5-6 minutes, or until onions are golden. Turn heat up to high, add wine and use a wooden spoon to scrape up browned bits from the bottom of the pot, until wine is reduced by half (about 4 minutes). Pour in the juice from tomatoes and then add tomatoes one at a time, crushing each by hand before adding to the pot.
Return chicken to pot, reduce heat to low and cook, mostly covered, for about 30 minutes until chicken is cooked through. Salt and pepper sauce to taste and scatter parsley into pot. Pull chicken from pot with tongs, into a large, shallow bowl; pour sauce over, garnish with a bit more fresh parsley and parmesan cheese, if desired.
Serve with pasta, rice or garlic mashed potatoes.
EASIEST GARLIC MASHED POTATOES
Approximately 2-3 lbs. russet potatoes, scrubbed clean, peeled and cut into chunks
3-4 cloves garlic, peeled and left whole
Half and half
My go-to mashed potato recipe is not so much a recipe as it is a loose framework. I use about one potato per person, depending on the size of the spuds. Scrub ‘em clean, peel and cut into large chunks. Then cover with cold water in a large stock pot and add the whole cloves of garlic. Bring the pot to boil on high. Once boiling, remove lid and let cook until potatoes are tender when pricked with a paring knife. Drain water, return potatoes and garlic to pot and add a few pats butter, two super generous pinches (I’m talking a thumb and three fingers, potatoes need salt) of kosher salt and a few cranks of black pepper.
Splash in about a scant ¼ cup of half and half and mash, with a potato masher; or, use my preferred tool and pulse with an immersion blender. If the consistency is too dry, add another pat of butter and another splash of half and half. Taste and adjust butter/ salt/ pepper. Adding whole cloves of garlic at the onset of cooking gives it a mellow, delicious flavor throughout and using your instincts will get you the consistency of potatoes you desire. I like mine almost whipped, but some people prefer them a little chunkier and drier. Who am I to tell a man how to mash his potatoes? There are some subjects you just don’t butt into.